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Is Java Bigger than Sun? - The Java Ecosystem Debates the Future of Java

Is Java Bigger than Sun? - The Java Ecosystem Debates the Future of Java

  • Sun's President: "JavaOne Wasn't About Sun"

    It was billed, to the press anyway, as a debate on "The Big Question."

    It brought together, in the general session hall yesterday morning at JavaOne in San Francisco's Moscone Center, seven highly vocal actors on the technology stage, including: Brian Behlendorf of the Apache Software Foundation; Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford University; Sun's Rob Gingell, Chairman of the Java Community Process; Rod Smith, VP of Emerging Technologies at IBM; and the father of Java himself, Sun's James Gosling.

    But what was the question? Was it should Sun open-source Java? Or was it if Sun were to open-source Java what exactly would that mean? Or was it, more philosophically, is Java bigger than Sun alone - and if so, how can others who have invested heavily in it, like IBM, BEA, and Nokia for example, get a better seat at the table in the process that shapes it, which is currently the JCP?

    In other words, there are multiple questions. Questions within questions. It isn't as easy issue.

    Sun Microsystems however, fully in tune with the "today is geek day" theme of the overall general session this morning, made a very good first attempt indeed at showing itself publicly to be a thoughtful and an open-minded custodian of the current process under which Java is evolved.

    Both Rob Gingell and James Gosling listened carefully to the arguments that were advanced by Brian Behlendorf, CTO of CollabNet in addition to being co-founder of Apache, and by IBM's Rod Smith, whose now notorious Open Letter to Sun caused the whole open-sourcing discussion to really blossom in the Java space.

    "We're hitting an interesting inflection point," said Smith. Innovation in the open source community as well as the Java community is plateau-ing, he contended. "We want to see innovation happen at a more rapid pace," he added.

    "My view," Smith continued, "is that we want to see an open source Java married more with the open source projects that Brian and other folks are doing. In enterprise development you want to be able to experiment outside of the box and then try it in a customer environment before bringing it into the JCP and completing the more formal process."

    The moderator of "The Big Question," open source advocate and publisher Tim O'Reilly, asked Smith just what he meant by open-sourcing Java.

    "Java is about compatability," Smith replied. "J2SE people expect compatability, so you could open the TDKs around JSE where customers and others could get involved with testing for compatability. The Jakarta Project set the foundation for things we see today - Struts and JSF for example - that have come back into the JCP process."

    Sun's Rob Gingell, in his capacity as chairman of the JCP, had no issues with this overall train of thought. "This would be a continuation of a journey we’ve been on for 10 years," Gingell observed. "Originally it was Sun and Sun only, now it's a variety of contributors, and we know it's going to continue to evolve. But there's a fundamental promise: that Java programs will not be lied to by things pretending to be Java." (This brought a round of applause from developers in the keynote hall.)

    Brian Behlendorf stressed the importance of "framing the conversation correctly," as he expressed it. "The Java community should support the open-source way of achieving ubiquity," he urged. "The open source community around Java would like to look at compatability of open source Java as symbiotic with innovation, not as two opposed ends of the spectrum."

    Creating intermediate/experimental versions of Java that might not be compatible is a natural part of the open source process, Behlendorf argued. So long as this fact is made transparent. "We believe in the 'sunshine law' - that open review leads to better standards and better implementation," he said.

    Lawrence Lessig agreed that Behlendorf and the open source community is right to separate the question of how you get implementations developed from the separate issue of how you get them verified for compatability.

    "Achieve compatability using other legal devices," Lessig suggested. "I believe in the law, and the law has tools independent of those open source and free software licenses, where there is a legitimate commercial objective of obtaining compatability."

    Compatability is the key, key attribute, chimed James Gosling. Java, he pointed out, "doesn't read trademarks, doesn't read licenses." What makes Java different, he reminded everyone, is the network. "As soon as you put an app on a Web site and say download it..."

    Tim O'Reilly wondered whether there would be any self-interest in a business delivering a system that didn't work. Lessig though conceded: "There are people out there who don't want it to work."

    Rod Smith returned to the theme of how the network isn't any longer just about Java.

    "It's not just Java. It's now about SOA and XML and WSDL. The marriage with open source is going to be critical," he asserted.

    Justin Shaffer, Director of Operations for MLB Advanced Media LP who was also on the panel of experts, wondered what would be accomplished by open-sourcing Java. The Jakarta Community after all seemed to work. "Why put it at risk?" asked Shaffer.

    O'Reilly had the answer, and introduced the first mention of a certain large compasny in Redmond. "There's an elephant in the room," he said. "The fact that on Linux the Mono Project is implemented on .NET not Java. Microsoft has a foot in the door, it has its own programming paradigm. We are starting to see another platform war, and we can't count Microsoft out. IBM has more touch points with the Linux community. How do we get that community to choose Java rather than .NET?"

    Gosling noted that Java is "incredibly heavily used" in the Linux community - "Apache, Jakarta - people that consider themselves in the Linux fold, you'll find tremendous use of Java," he said.

    Smith picked up the Mono theme. "Look at Mono. From an open source basis, when people want to innovate they're looking to places like that. You want the Java community and the Linux community to grow together. We as Java vendors spend a lot of money as we put the solutions together, it would lower the cost to integrators and to the developers in this audience and reduce time to market. For applications."

    But Gosling wanted to make one point clear. "It happens already. All of the bug databases are published - unlike say Apple, where they're not published at all. You can find every last wart that everyone has ever found. You can download the full J2SE, you get all the source for all the APIs, the thing that OS folks rant about is that there's a catch in the license that's more onerous than the catch in the GPL license. We've gotten tremendous value out of the comunity, out of the fact that he source is out there."

    Lessig agreed with Gosling, but wondered: "Is it enough?"

    If the process of opening Java were taken one step further, he continued, then developers and vendors wouldn't have to trust "that Sun remains an angel organization and that you will invite more people."

    In Lessig's view, it isn't necessary to solve the problem of compatability right at the beginning of the development proess.

    Gosling: "I love Linux to bits, but..."

    Gosling didn't endorse Linux as a shining example, however. "We lived through the Unix wars," he said, "and I love Linux to bits, but the same problem is coming all over again. All these distros, almost interoperable, but they're different enough to be a pain in the butt."

    Behlendorf noted: "The same is true with the Java VM. Write Once Run Anywhere is a great ideal. Open source developers can help with getting to that ideal. Open sourcing Java would be a way to allow this to happen without folks having to do it on the sly, fearing Sun's lawyers."

    Gingell returned to his theme of how the whole approach taken by Sun to Java has been a "journey," and that his company was learning all the time, listening all the time, and adjusting things along the way.

    "Are we hurting the things we want to help?" he asked, honestly. He recounted how he'd had dinner with the Geronimo folks the previous evening, and that one developer mentioned how he'd watched the TCK run and found broken code...but he couldn't help. Gingell saw the frustration in that: "We don't want to break the promise of compatability, but we also want to enable the positive side."

    Gingell asked Rod Smith a question. "What does the verb 'to open-source' mean in this context? Are we talking about that Sun shouldn't be at the top of the committer tree? Open source may be the answer, but what is the problem, let's be clear? If this were to happen, how do we change our development practices? Part of the difficulties people have are maybe that our licenses are obscure, or that we don't run the communities effectively enough. Maybe we can improve what we have."

    Behlendorf tried to clarify: "No one's asking that all reference implementations in the GCK be made open. Let the license of specs allow for the open-source implementations on a case by case basis. The Groovy JSR is a test case, it says that it will be open-sourced and we'll all see that this wil end in faster results - and yet still will conform with the APIs and compatability."

    Rob Gingell summed up that this question about open-sourcing Java has been raised every JavaOne for the last 4 years. But no one need question for a moment Sun's overwhelming commitment to Java. 

    "We've bet the company on Java," Gingell reminded everyone. "And what we've bet on is compatability. One way to ensure compatability would be to never change Java again. And you'd all stop coming to JavaOne and using Java. So we know we are going to change it. The question is, how can we do that while preserving what we care about? It's a continuous conversation."

    Gosling agreed: "Participate," he urged everyone present in the crowded keynote hall. "We have this forum and often it seems like the squeaky wheels are the only ones that participate."

    He was reminded, he said, of Churchill's remark about how democracy is the worst possible form of government - except for all the others.

    "Go over to jcp.org and get involved," said Gosling. "Vote."

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